A Gift Worth Receiving

Do you respond or react to feedback?

Years ago, I had a colleague who was always quick to volunteer for tasks and quicker to commit to deadlines for the completion of those tasks. But most of the time, he didn't deliver on his promises. Over a period of about 15 months, some of the commitments he made (and didn't deliver on) affected me, mostly because I had to pick up the slack. So I decided to speak to him about it.

I called him into a private meeting and told him how much I loved his enthusiasm for getting things done, but wondered if he was taking on too many things at the same time. I gave him three instances over the previous year that he was not able to deliver by the deadlines that he committed to, without even trying to re-negotiate those deadlines. I explained how this could affect his credibility as a person and that people could easily misjudge his intention as a result of his actions.

Bruised Egos

Let me pause here to say that it can be difficult to receive negative feedback without being defensive. As humans, we don’t like someone telling us what we’re not doing well. It bruises our egos. And that’s true even if we already know that we have opportunities to improve in those areas.

Let's get back to my colleague. While he thanked me for taking the time to discuss this with him, I could tell that he didn't like what just happened. During the half-hour discussion, he used the phrase, “I take an exception to that” at least twice. He also asked me what right I had to come to him with “accusations” that had no basis. I wasn't his boss, and had no other motive for telling him what I observed, than the concern for the damage to his reputation. He didn't seem to see it that way, however. I left the room wondering if I would ever approach him to discuss anything like that again.

Ask For It

Receiving negative feedback stings, especially when it’s coming from someone that we think has no business giving us such feedback. Our defenses come up against this unwelcomed interference that’s dealing blows to our egos. Early in my career, I was one of those who responded very poorly to receiving such feedback. Much later, I saw that the feedback I was receiving were to my benefit. I realized that those giving me the feedback were not doing it just to frustrate me or make me mad. They were doing it in my best interests! So to take the sting out, I decided to go on the offensive.

When I was a project manager, I started the practice of asking for specific feedback from my project teams, customers, vendors and all others that I had contact with, in the course of executing a project. At the end of each project, I would send each of these people a questionnaire to provide me feedback on how I performed as I led the project. I called it "Stakeholder Feedback". The last question is the only one for which they needed to actually formulate a response, and not just check a box. I ask them, “In your opinion, in what specific ways could I have done a better job while managing this project?” By doing this, I was giving them permission to provide me the kind of feedback that could help me get better. This helped, especially in situations where they had something to say, but were reluctant to do so. It also removed the sting that would have otherwise come from the feedback if it was unsolicited. Over the years, this practice has helped me to be more gracious in receiving constructive feedback, even when I didn't ask for it.

Be Humble in Receiving

Whether solicited or not, receiving negative feedback is not easy. Lashing out or becoming defensive is the natural response of the human nature. First of all, it’s good to make a prior decision not to respond in this manner. Next, you need to continually remind yourself of this decision because you can easily forget in the heat of battle. Finally, carry it through. Whether or not the “attack” is justified, hear the person out.

Leaders especially need to be careful when they ask for feedback. Ensure that you truly mean it, and not paying lip service to your request for true constructive feedback. Those you lead will know if you’re a phony right away. I used to be part of a team where the leadership talked about having an open door policy, and admonished the team to have the courage speak up. But any voice of dissent was quickly silenced. They didn't listen and internalize what they heard before responding. The result was that many who had real, helpful feedback kept quiet, and said nothing.

Give Thanks

Irrespective of how ridiculous the feedback seems, or how angry you are at the time of receiving it, thank the person for having the courage to speak up. This is especially true if they're not in a position of authority over you. Let them know how much you appreciate the fact that they have your best interests at heart. Take a few days to think about it, and if necessary, approach them later to ask clarifying questions. As you do this, you are demonstrating that you are coach-able, and will listen. In many cases however, feedback tells you more about the person giving it than about you.